Declassified Documents: Bin Laden Nominated CBS for Anti-Bush Video

By Terence P. Jeffrey | May 17, 2017 | 6:59pm EDT
Osama bin Laden in his Oct. 29, 2004 videotape that was broadcast on al Jazeera. (Screen Capture)

( - Among the materials that U.S. forces retrieved from Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was a document (labeled “Letter providing direction”) in which the author, who speaks as if he is bin Laden himself, advised those he was directing to seek a deal with “any American TV station” to run a videotape he planned to produce in the fall of 2004.

But he specifically nominated CBS as his own candidate for broadcasting the tape.

In the end, al Qaida did release a videotape of bin Laden that was broadcast on Oct. 29, 2004—by Al Jazeera, not CBS.

“Additionally, for my upcoming tape in November,” says the letter retrieved from Bin Laden’s compound, according to the English translation released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “look for a secure line with any American TV station and obtain a commitment letter to broadcast the entire tape. I nominate the CBS station.”

Another 2004 document that U.S. forces retrieved from Bin Laden’s compound—this one labeled “Draft letter to subordinates”—makes the same suggestion.

“We also,” it says, “ask you to search for a safe line with any American channel, with a letter guaranteeing to publish the complete tape and we nominate (recommend) CBS, and this is the process for my tape which will be published in November, God willing.”

The draft letter and the letter were among the materials taken from bin Laden’s compound when U.S. forces killed bin Laden there on May 2, 2011. The ODNI released the two documents (along with 47 others) on Jan. 19, 2017 as part of the third and final set of declassified materials it presented to the public via a webpage it calls “Bin Laden’s Bookshelf."

This release of the documents was in keeping with the Intelligence Authorization Act of 2014, which ordered the Director of National Intelligence to “complete a declassification review of the documents collected in Abbottabad” and “make publicly available any information declassified as a result of the declassification review.”

Both the “Draft letter to subordinates” and the “Letter providing direction” lay out a potential communications strategy for al Qaida leading up to the November 2004 U.S. presidential election.

Both envision Ayman al Zawahiri, then Bin Laden’s top deputy, issuing messages in September and October of that year and Bin Laden himself delivering a videotape in November.

The draft letter and letter refer to Zawahiri as “the doctor” (he is a physician) and by the nickname “Abu Fatima,” which means “father of Fatima” (one of Zawahiri’s daughters is named Fatima).

“We also wish from Brother/Abu Fatima to send two messages to America,” says the draft letter. “The first message in September, and the second message at the end of October, before the elections; concentrate in it on the lies of Bush and his government, and also his crimes, and the failure of Bush and how we were able to economically bleed America.”

“What is important to us,” says the draft letter, “is for the American people to understand that what we are telling them is rational.

“The speech [apparently Zawahiri’s] must not have a clear threat, so that [i]t would not be in contrast to my speech,” says the draft letter. “The general idea is for Bush and his administration to lose the opportunity where he uses his speeches about al Qaida and how it is about to launch operations, and all this is to rally the people behind him. Our speech doesn’t have threats or assurances, but we want him to understand why we are fighting them.”

According to the English translation published by the ODNI, the “Letter providing direction” similarly says: “We also want Abu-Fatima to issue two letters to America, one in September and the other at the end of October, right before the elections. The letters should concentrate on the lies of Bush, his government and his failure.”

It goes on to say: “The main idea is to circumvent the chance for Bush and his administration to use al Qaida and its imminent operations against America to rally the people around them. Our speech will neither be threatening nor comforting, just for them to understand why they are attacked.”

As it turned out, al Jazeera did broadcast a videotape from Zawahiri on Sept. 9, 2004. It also broadcast an audiotape from Zawahiri on Oct. 1, 2004.

And bin Laden did release a videotape that fall.

But it was al Jazeera—not CBS—that broadcast it on Friday, Oct. 29, 2004, just four days before the U.S. presidential election, which was on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2004.

“CBS was not aware of the CBS references in the documents and had nothing to do with the release of the tape,” a CBS News source told

Were the letter and draft letter actually drafted by bin Laden and did he actually send them to anyone?

“We’re not labeling them as being drafted by UBL although many of them are from his personal correspondence,” said an intelligence official familiar with the documents that have been released. “We do not know if he sent the letters and, if so, to whom he sent them.”

“There was a lot of discussion about the best practices for AQ media releases in the documents, but I don’t believe there was ever a letter indicating AQ had decided on one news network,” said the intelligence official. “Rather, the letters indicate AQ was debating the pros and cons of various networks and looking for a sympathetic ear, including naming journalists they might be able to use.”

The intelligence official could not confirm the dates of the letters. However, events cited in both the “Draft letter to subordinates” and “Letter providing direction” indicate they had to be drafted in 2004 and most likely in the summer of that year.

In the draft, for example, Bin Laden speaks of what he calls “the torture of the brothers in Guantanamo and Abu Ghurayb” and in the letter he speaks of what he calls “the issue of torturing the brethren in Guantanamo and Abu Ghurayb.” The New York Times first reported on Jan. 17, 2004, that the “top American commander in Iraq has ordered a criminal investigation into allegations that detainees at the sprawling Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad have been abused by American forces.” In an episode of “60 Minutes II” that was hosted by Dan Rather and broadcast in late April 2004, CBS News reported on photographs taken of the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib.

Both the draft and the letter also refer to what Bin Laden calls “the killing of the BBC photographer” on the “Arabian Peninsula.” This may refer to a June 6, 2004 terrorist attack in which BBC reporter Frank Gardner and cameraman Simon Cumbers were shot in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Cumbers was killed in the attack.

That would place the drafting of these documents between the June 2004 terrorist attack in Riyadh and Zawahiri’s September 2004 tape that was broadcast on al Jazeera.

Before bin Laden’s own Oct. 29, 2004 videotape was broadcast on al Jazeera, the U.S. State Department reached out through the government of Qatar in an effort to stop the broadcast, according to an Associated Press report published that day.

“The U.S. reasoning was that the satellite television network should not give a platform to someone who runs terrorist operations and promotes terrorist activities, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity,” the AP reported.

“Al-Jazeera defended its decision to air the tape, saying no one could question its news value,” said the AP.  “Spokesman Jihad Ali Ballout said the station received the tape Friday but would not say how.”

Al Jazeera also published a full transcript of bin Laden’s speech. In it, he tried to justify the 9/11 attacks while deriding President George W. Bush.

“Even though we are in the fourth year after the events of September 11th,” bin Laden said, “Bush is still engaged in distortion, deception and hiding from you the real causes. And, thus, the reasons are still there for a repeat of what occurred.”

Former CBS anchor Walter Cronkite appeared on Larry King’s CNN show the night al Jazeera broadcast the bin Laden tape—and said he was “a little inclined” to think Bush strategist Karl Rove had hand in it.

“So now, the question is basically right now, how will this affect the election?” Cronkite said. “And I have a feeling that it could tilt the election a bit. In fact, I'm a little inclined to think that Karl Rove, the political manager at the White House, who is a very clever man, he probably set up bin Laden to this thing.”

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